No, of course I haven't forgotten about Harry... This is the last chapter. We've gone full circle here, starting and ending with his POV. It only seemed right. I think I hit the pained-but-hopeful note all right here.
The day I began writing this chapter, this song came on at the ending of the Cold Case episode I was watching. I think it influenced a lot of it. It's a lovely song. Gordon Lightfoot – If You Could Read My Mind.
I don't know where we went wrong,
But the feelin's gone
And I just can't get it back...
I'm sure you know whom this one is about. I seriously think it's one of the best chapters, so I'm glad it ends here.
To the readers who made it through to the end: thank you. I can't thank a single reader or reviewer enough.
I feel kind of sad that this fic is over, but it's more than counterbalanced – let's say overridden – by just a little pride. 50 chapters, over 200 reviews, and 140k words (though I should subtract the Author's Notes from that to get a more accurate count).
EDIT (Nov 2012): This fic is still being read, which I find absolutely magical. Thank you for all the reviews. I read your comments, each and every single one, and they mean a lot to me.
It's a Start
She was sitting cross-legged in the grass outside the Burrow, her head tilted back to catch the last rays of afternoon sunlight against her face before it became dark. Her long hair swished like a red curtain behind her as the wind shook it out. It was tangled, frazzled, and messy. The corners of her mouth were turned down into a scowl and her eyes were screwed shut against the harshness of the sun. Ginny looked closed off and utterly unapproachable, and he felt his heart squeeze when he thought of the last time he had seen her smile. Her real smile, the wide one that made her eyes sparkle, spoke mountains of her feelings when her tongue couldn't find the words, and made him want to wax poetry – though Merlin knew she would hate it if he actually went through with it.
His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad... He staggered back as though struck, and it was almost as though he had been. He still remembered the dwarf's gravelly voice as he recited the poem that he knew Ginny had written for him. He remembered the embarrassment he had felt and how Ginny had turned bright red. The memory elicited another painful twinge in his chest as he recalled the rest of his second year, when she had sent him that poem on Valentine's Day and he had saved her from a basilisk. How far they had come since then... Friendship, and then... more. Only for it all to end like this: they were hardly able to look at each other anymore, let alone carry a conversation. He didn't know where it had all gone wrong.
Was it when Fred had died? Or did it go back to when he had left her to go back to Hogwarts while he went on the run? Maybe when he had ended things? Or was it really like she said and had he been the one changed by the war? He had thought, in the hours after the battle, that they would be fine. But something had gone terribly wrong, and he still wasn't sure what. All he was sure of was that when he looked at Ginny, like he was doing right now, he felt the same thing he had felt when he had watched her with Dean, what seemed like ages ago: a jumbled mess of loss, futility, want and confusion. He held on to that feeling like a desperate hope, like a sign that things could go back what they had been... go back to normal.
As he watched, Ginny blew out a weary sigh and opened her eyes.
"I know you're there, Harry."
His heart leapt in his throat – more hope. He was surprised, but not unduly so, that she had felt his presence. He suspected she knew he watched her often. The shocking part was that she had decided to call him on it. To actually say something to him.
He moved out from behind the tree that had been barely concealing him, unsure of what to expect, and met Ginny's eyes.
She smiled mirthlessly, not her real smile. "You know, some people would find that creepy."
"Others might find it romantic," he said, then bit his lip.
But Ginny didn't seem to mind the remark. In fact, her smile grew slightly warmer.
"I'll let you guess which group I fit into."
"Hopefully not the first," Harry said carefully. "But probably not the second."
Her brown eyes were sad despite the smile. "Probably not," she agreed. "I suppose it depends on your intent."
His heart skipped a beat. Not because he interpreted her words as flirting, but because they hadn't exchanged so many words at once since Christmas (and that hadn't been a very pleasant experience), and her last sentence obviously expected an answer. It was an invitation to continue, and Harry hardly needed any more encouragement.
"I wanted to see you."
"You see me practically every day. Mum likes to have you over for dinner."
"Yes, but... not like that. Not so closed off and wary."
As jumpy as a rabbit in his presence, ever worse than she had been when she was still young and in complete admiration of him.
"I wanted to see you. Just you. Not... not whatever it is has happened between us."
She nodded, like it made sense. "And it's me you see when I'm alone?"
"Then what do I have to do to see you?" she asked, her voice hoarse.
His entire body was tingling. Questions. Answers. A conversation. He found himself stepping forward closer to her. She followed him with her eyes but didn't say anything.
"This is me," he said. He spread his arms out. "It's not the me you used to know. I realise that. I know you're right and I've changed. But... it's still me, Ginny."
Her eyes were shining, but he couldn't tell if it was from tears, or the reflection of the sunlight, or something else entirely.
"I know," she said. "I know that. You're you, and I'm still me, but... we just don't click anymore."
That hurt. It hurt more than Harry could ever have imagined, but he didn't let it show. She was talking to him, trying to make progress, and he wasn't going to let the opportunity slip past him without doing anything. He pressed forward.
"I think... I think we haven't changed, exactly. We're still the same people, but there are... parts missing. So our edges don't fit together like they used to. We're... jagged."
"Jagged," Ginny repeated. The tears spilt over suddenly; he hated seeing her cry. "Luna said something to that effect the other day. The parts missing... they're the things we've lost, aren't they? We'll never go back to the way we used to." Her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "Fred will never come back."
"No," he said. "He won't. None of them will."
"So there will always be something missing?"
He wanted, so desperately, to tell her no, of course not.
"Yes. I think so. But... you learn to live with it, you know? When Sirius died... I know it's not the same," he said quickly. "I don't mean –"
She gave an awful, strangled half-laugh, half-hiccup. "Don't be daft. Sirius was the only family you had."
He was startled. "Yeah... Yeah, I suppose he was."
"How did... how did you get over it?" she said softly. "How were you ever happy again?"
He looked at her, really looked at her. "You helped," he said truthfully. "You helped a lot. You, and Ron, and Hermione."
"I can't help anymore," she said. "I'm useless to you now. I can't... I just can't."
He didn't know where he found the courage – Gryffindor courage – , but he did. He closed the few feet that still separated them, sat down right across from her, and took her hands in his, looking deep into her eyes, which were red from crying.
"You're not useless," he said. "Especially not to me."
"Then what am I to you?"
He stopped breathing for a split second. The words hung in the air between them, heavy, desperate, confused. What am I to you? The question rang again and again in Harry's head. What am I to you?
"I don't know," he said finally. "I don't know anything much these days."
Ginny gave a short, tight nod and didn't withdraw her hands. She sat in silence for a moment, furiously blinking her tears away, and then her gaze strayed over his shoulder to some point in the distance. He turned his head to see what she was looking at. The sun was setting and had begun to streak the sky with pink and orange.
"I like sunsets," Ginny murmured. "Luna and I watched them all the time at Hogwarts, that year."
He didn't need to ask what year she meant.
"It was like... a constant," Ginny went on, taking her hands back and hugging herself as a stronger gust of wind ripped through the air.
He tried not to let the loss of her touch bother him.
"A stupid, pretty constant in a world where everything was messed up and unpredictable. I think it helped. They still help, really."
"What happened?" he asked. "That year. You never told me... we never really talked about it."
"My year, or yours?"
"Yours." He smiled ruefully. "I think you know about mine by now. Ron and Hermione must have told you most of it."
"Some of it," she corrected him. "They wouldn't tell me everything. Like when we thought you were dead..."
"Can you imagine how I felt?" she said in a strangled voice. Then: "I'm sorry. I shouldn't –"
"No, no," he said quickly. "It's okay. I'll tell you... someday."
He wanted to say something else but the words stuck in his throat. You can ask me those questions, Ginny. You can ask me anything as long as you please just talk to me. He wanted her to know that.
"Turn around," Ginny said, averting her eyes from the intensity of his gaze.
He did, and scooted backward and to the side so that he was sitting next to her, watching as the sun set behind the shadowy outline of the Burrow.
"I used to think," Ginny said very quietly, looking straight ahead, "that the world had changed. That you had changed, that Hogwarts had changed, that everything around me had changed. But now I think... I think I'm the one who's different. Maybe I'm just seeing things through a new pair of eyes, and those things are so distorted compared to what I used to see that I think they've changed. So I like watching the sunset... because it's still the same.
"Do you think it'll ever get any easier, Harry?"
"No," he said. "It won't."
She nodded. The sun sat low in the orange, pink and purple sky, on the brink of disappearing.
"Last year was different," she said finally. "It was awful at Hogwarts. I think you heard the most important stuff from Neville."
She pulled the sleeve of her flowing white shirt up, revealing a series of five or so small criss-crossed scars along the inside of her forearm. Harry hadn't seen them before; she tended to wear long sleeves now. Now he knew why.
"Got some here, too," she said, touching her cheek with one hand. "Like Neville. But those were things you could heal. They saved the really awful spells for places we could hide, like our arms. I got this one –" she pointed at a nasty-looking jagged scar on her arm – "after we painted the first 'Still Recruiting' right outside the Great Hall. But I wasn't caught that often, you know. Sometimes Snape would take over our punishment, and then we really got nothing at all. I didn't understand back then, but now I do, I think. Hermione told me about him."
"The worst punishments weren't even the Carrows'. They were the ditzes."
"The ditzes. Stands for 'Death Eater in training.' DITs, or ditzes. Not really Death Eaters," Ginny said. "But that's what we called them. Slytherin pure-bloods the Carrows had complete control over."
"You mean..." A wave of repulsion hit Harry. "You mean students hurt you?"
"Of course. Didn't Neville tell you? It was part of the Dark Arts class. But it didn't hurt that much," Ginny said, absent-mindedly scratching one of the scars. "It was just the idea of it... it was horrible. The Carrows knew that."
"Did they go back?" Harry asked. "Did any of them go back to Hogwarts this year?"
Ginny nodded. "Well, yeah. A couple. There were hardly any Slytherins this year, but –"
"How come this didn't come up in any of the trials?" Harry wanted to know.
"Because no one would have testified. We worked it out between us. Neville and I... the entire DA agreed on that. The others must have been too scared, or maybe they agreed with us, too."
Ginny shot him a disgusted look. "Didn't you do anything during that year that you'd rather forget? Anything you're ashamed of?"
"Well, yes, but –"
"It was war, Harry."
The sky darkened as the sun finally disappeared below the horizon. The shine left Ginny's eyes and hair, but her pale skin seemed to glow in the dusk.
"Those people... they could just as easily have been us, you know? They were our age. They were terrified of the Carrows. We all were. They didn't deserve to go to Azkaban for that."
"One of them," Ginny said, "even walked me all the way back to Gryffindor Tower afterwards. I could have gone by myself, but he wanted to make sure I was going to be okay and that there would be somebody there to look after me. He never actually apologised, but I could tell he was sorry. Most of them didn't want to do it any more than we wanted them to do it, Harry. They didn't have a choice. Neville took care of me after I reached Gryffindor Tower and he... he thanked the guy. We all felt like that, really. It was Us, the students, against Them, the Carrows. Maybe the Slytherins weren't as open as we were about it. They thought Voldemort was going to win. But they didn't really want it to happen."
"Still," Harry said. "Like you said, you were scared, too, and you didn't –"
"I'm a blood traitor, Harry," she cut in. "The Carrows already knew who my family was, and it didn't take long for them to realise I had been close to you. I couldn't have lain low if I'd tried. Neville was the same, because of what Bellatrix did to his parents. That's why we decided to restart the DA." She blinked, twice. "We were amazed at how many people had kept their coins. You meant a lot to them, Harry."
"I'm not –"
"The DA was our only option for survival," Ginny said. "But the Slytherins... they had to find another way, and if that's what it took for them to save their own lives, then who am I to say anything about it?"
"You never hurt anyone, though. What they did was just wrong."
"They hurt us," Ginny agreed. "But we hurt people, too. Everything we did – the pranks, the diversions, everything – had repercussions. We tried not to let the Carrows catch us, and if we succeeded, then they pinned it on someone else, and that's who was punished. Every time we did something that royally pissed the Carrows off, it ended badly for one of the students. Sometimes it was a Slytherin, for being too lenient and letting us get away with it. I think Neville started intentionally letting himself get caught after a while just so no one else would have to take the rap for him. You saw his face before the Battle. But I didn't do the same. I ran. Every single time." She turned to face Harry. "Don't you see? We hurt them, too. It would be stupid... It would be wrong to hold a grudge. I don't blame any of them. They pitied us, but we pitied them more. And now we've won, I still pity them, because they have to deal with what they did. So no, we didn't testify, and we won't. As for the few that came back to Hogwarts... I talked to one of them. He was worse than messed up... it was awful."
"What did you say?"
"I told him I was sorry."
"How did he take that?"
Ginny smiled, still not her real smile, but as close to it as he had seen in a long time. "He told me I was an idiot."
"How kind of him."
"And then he said thank you. I think he was surprised, is all. But he was really polite about it and everything, after that. We talked for about five minutes. I don't remember what about, exactly – just stuff. It made me realise that these people, you know, they're normal. Like you, like me. Just... normal people with families and problems and things they like and don't like. I think Hermione was right and that all this rivalry between the houses doesn't make any sense. Maybe if we had been in the same house, this guy and I would have been friends, but now we'll never know because of something a talking hat decided when we were eleven. Even the Quidditch – it's overrated and fuels the spite and rivalry."
"Quidditch is overrated? Okay. I was wrong. You have changed."
"I captained this year," she said, shaking her head. "It was wonderful. I still love playing. I hope to get Captain again next year. But some people take it too far." She smiled vaguely. "We lost the cup to Slytherin."
"Don't you dare tell Ron. Your family will disown you."
"I was disappointed," she admitted. "But Malfoy looked so happy –"
"Malfoy?" Harry repeated.
"He was the Slytherin captain this year. And he..." She stopped suddenly.
"And nothing," she said. "My point is, they're just as human as we are."
"You're not seriously asking that question. You saw the state he was in at the trial. Hermione told me about it. Are you still obsessed with him?"
Harry considered it. "Maybe. Or maybe I want to believe that I am, so I can pretend the world hasn't changed that much."
"He looked like he was all right," Ginny said. "I mostly saw him when he was playing, and he looked... all right. I think he'll be fine."
"He had better be," Harry said. "I didn't save his arse from Azkaban for nothing."
"We should do this more often."
"What, watch the sun set?"
"That, too. I meant talk, though."
He smiled back. "Yeah... yeah, we should. Like we used to."
"Those were good times," she said, and for the first time, he thought he caught a glimpse of the real smile reaching her eyes. "Where did we go wrong, Harry?"
"I don't know," he said. He paused, then pushed forward: "What if... I mean, do you think if we tried, we could go back to that?"
The smile faded, and he immediately back-pedalled.
"I didn't mean that. Not... not that," he said, feeling the heat rise to his cheeks. "You've made yourself clear, don't worry. I was talking about... I know you don't think it will work out, but could we just try... try and be friends? Because – "
"Harry," she said, and in those two syllables, his name, there was exasperation, amusement, and a fondness that wrapped itself around his heart warmly. "It's all right. I understand. Yes."
"So... are we friends?"
Ginny reached out and covered his hand with hers. The feel of her skin against his once more made Harry shiver.
"We're friends," she confirmed with a true, wide, poetry-waxing-worthy smile. Then she added, her meaning clear, "For now."
All was not well, but it was a start.